Note – The worship of God involves our whole being and every act we perform. In this article, worship is used to refer to singing in a corporate worship service.
There is nothing more important than sound teaching in a church. To many churchgoers, however, the type of music used in the service is often a high priority. Church leaders sometimes struggle with the task of choosing music that both appeals to the congregation and teaches sound doctrine. More and more often, complicating the issue, church leaders must decide whether to use songs that are finely crafted and theologically sound but come from a church or writer who holds unbiblical views.
Many believers strongly believe that songs, even those with doctrinally sound lyrics, should not be used if the writer, composer, or parent ministry has unbiblical teachings. Those with such convictions should follow their conscience. If they feel the need to talk to the church leadership about the issue, they should do so in a spirit of gentleness and humility and seek answers with the goal of peacefully settling the matter. If the answer they receive from the decision-makers is not acceptable to them, they may quietly submit to the outcome or quietly leave the church.
Ephesians 5:19 says that, when we are filled with the Spirit, we will be “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” Music is thus an important means of communication in the church. It should go without saying that any song whose lyrics contain false teaching should be rejected. The Spirit will not communicate falsehood. Beyond the doctrinal test, there are several possible complications in considering a song to use in worship:
The songwriter has unbiblical beliefs. Horatio Spafford, the writer of “It is Well with my Soul,” didn’t believe in eternal hell or Satan. Francis of Assisi, who wrote “All Creatures of our God and King,” was Roman Catholic. Matthew Bridges, author of “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” converted to Roman Catholicism. Does this mean we must remove those songs from our hymnals? If the lyrics of the song are biblical, does the theological background of the writer matter?
More recent controversies don’t usually involve hymns. There are several churches and music groups today who release powerful, even theologically sound worship songs but are known for promoting bad theology in their services and concerts. If the bad theology is not actually expressed in the lyrics of their songs, can we use those songs for our worship services?
The songwriter has fallen into sin. What do we do with worship songs written by someone who comes out as a homosexual or who commits adultery and gets divorced? The sin of the composer does not change the quality of the song, but it might change the suitability of the song for use in a church service—depending on the associations the song creates in the minds of a congregation.
The lyrics, properly understood, have an unbiblical interpretation. For example, some popular modern songs speak of the Holy Spirit “raining down.” Many Christians assume this is a metaphor, speaking of the nurturing and cleansing blessings the Holy Spirit gives in our day-to-day lives. Singers may not realize the songwriter intended something more literal: a fresh visitation of the Spirit who will bring new prophecies and signs and wonders. Which matters more: what the songwriter intended or what the singers intend?
Using the song will support an organization teaching bad doctrine. One of the biggest arguments lately is that using a song produced by doctrinally flawed groups will support those churches or music groups and thus help spread their unbiblical beliefs. A popular song could draw people to investigate the church that originally produced it and introduce them to false teaching. In addition, the producing church or music group gets money whenever their songs are downloaded or performed and whenever their lyrics are publicly displayed. The concern becomes less about the song and more about boycotting an organization that doesn’t adhere to orthodox beliefs.
Worship must be done in spirit and in truth. It helps to go back to Jesus’ command that we worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). To worship “in spirit” means that we worship sincerely, with our whole heart. We can’t do this if the song reminds us of the unbiblical theology of the church or songwriter who produced the song.
Also, our worship should be “in truth,” that is, based in a true biblical knowledge of God. Every element of our worship should be theologically sound. If a song’s lyrics reflect questionable or unclear theology, it’s foolishness to use those words to worship God; if we wouldn’t stand in front of the congregation and say it, we shouldn’t sing it.
Regarding the choice of songs for worship, as in all things related to the ministry of a church, we should act in wisdom, grace, and humility. We need wisdom in choosing the best songs for our specific congregation and in determining the importance of secondary considerations such as the identity and character of the songwriters and composers. We need grace to avoid becoming judgmental and to help distinguish between personal preference and vital doctrinal matters. We need humility to live according to our convictions and at the same time live in peace with our fellow believers.